There is new research supporting the health benefits of breast-feeding, even in industrialized countries where the safety of infant formula is not an issue.
Only about two-thirds of American mothers breast-feed their children immediately after birth, and that number declines rapidly over the baby's first year of life. For many American moms, the convenience of formula outweighs the health advantages of breast milk.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the superiority of breast-feeding. Most studies have focused on developing countries, where there is often not enough money to buy formula, so it is diluted, and sometimes the water used is unsafe. That is much less of a problem in the United States, but a new study indicates that even American breast-fed babies are less likely to die as infants.
"There was a 20 percent reduction in deaths from one month to one year [of age] in kids who were ever breast-fed," he said.
Walter Rogan of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences looked at large surveys of thousands of babies, both those who survived and those who died in the first year of life, and they analyzed whether they had been breast-fed.
Dr. Rogan explains that many other studies have demonstrated that breast-fed babies are healthier and less likely to die, in part because of what is in breast milk. "Breast-feeding actually is immunologically active," said Dr. Rogan. "There [are] live cells and there [are] antibodies that are present in breast milk that transfer immunity from the mom to the kid."
But that is not the whole story. In this new study, children who breast-feed also show fewer deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and even from accidental causes. Something about breast milk, or the act of breast-feeding seems to be at work, but it is not clear what.
"That operates through a variety of mechanisms, not all of which are understood," explained Dr. Rogan. "What surprised us was that the reduction in risk was very similar across the different categories of death. It was not a huge difference in infectious disease and not much different in other things."
So even if more research is needed to understand why, this latest study does provide more evidence for what we already know: that breast-fed babies are healthier babies, and are more likely to survive that challenging first year of life.